New Regulation Could Require Heath Plans to Cover More COVID-19 Testing

State health officials have filed an emergency regulation that would require health plans to cover the costs of coronavirus testing for all essential workers,  something they say will reduce barriers so more people can get tested.

Under the new regulation from the California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC), COVID-19 testing  would be classified as a basic medical necessity for health care and other essential workers, regardless of symptoms or known exposure to someone with the virus.

DMHC says requiring health insurers to pay for tests without co-pays or cost sharing will give vulnerable populations and people who can’t physically distance at work more access to testing, and help infected people isolate faster.

A spokesperson from the California Association of Health Plans says insurers in the state have already been covering COVID-19 testing if ordered by a physician per federal guidelines. But instead of doctors evaluating which patients have a medical necessity for testing on a case-by-case basis, essential workers would now automatically qualify for their tests to be paid for by health plans.

On Wednesday, DMHC submitted the emergency regulation to the state's Office of Administrative Law, which has 10 days to approve it.

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— Peter Arcuni (@peterarcuni)

Santa Rosa School District and Teachers' Union Set Tentative Date to Resume In-Person Classes

Santa Rosa City Schools and the Santa Rosa Teachers Association reached a tentative agreement this Friday on a memorandum of understanding to resume in-person classes on April 1, district officials said Friday.

The agreement still has to be ratified by the union's members, but it would bring students in Santa Rosa back to classrooms for the first time in more than a year through a phased reopening.

The district includes some 15,500 students at 24 schools as well as 900 certified teachers, school counselors and other staff.

"I am thrilled that our students will soon be back at their school sites to connect with their teachers, friends and in-person learning," Santa Rosa City Schools Superintendent Dr. Diann Kitamura said in a statement.

K-6 students would return to class April 1, part of the first group under the tentative agreement, with a hybrid schedule of in-person classes two days per week and distance learning the other three days of the week.

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Special needs students, English learners and other "special population" students in grades K-12 would also return to class April 1 with a hybrid schedule.

Students in grades 7-12 would return to class in a hybrid format April 26 under the agreement.

The agreement also guarantees access to two coronavirus vaccine doses for SRTA members prior to the reopening dates, according to the district.

The agreement allows for educators to return to their classrooms before students to prepare, including training to recognize students showing social emotional distress after being out of the classroom for so long.

The SRTA is expected to hold a ratification vote between March 10 and March 17.

"Santa Rosa City Schools has been planning for a safe return to our schools since last summer," Kitamura said. "We have navigated through ever-changing health information and requirements. The SRCS and SRTA teams coming together to finish this work is something that is appreciated by the entire community."

Eli Walsh, Bay City News

A's, Giants Fans Should Be Able to Attend Games Again After California Relaxes Restrictions

Californians will be able to return to outdoor sports stadiums and amusement parks, although in limited numbers, starting April 1, according to guidelines released by the state on Friday.

For baseball and soccer, the restrictions are 20 percent of normal capacity in counties in the red tier, 25 percent in the orange, and 67 percent in the yellow. Tickets will be sold only to residents of California, and only in “pods” of two or four seats separated from other groups. Fans must wear masks at all times, unless they’re eating or drinking. No vendors in the stands will be allowed, and stadium bars and food windows will be closed – concessions will be sold through an app and delivered, with minimal contact, to fans in seats.

Oakland Athletics President Dave Kaval says after a year with only cardboard cutouts and prerecorded stadium sound, the players are delighted to have even a limited number of live fans back.

“The excitement and energy that they bring is something that we realize now how much we’ve needed that," he said. "They want the energy that the crowd brings.”

Kaval has noticed a difference in the vibe during even the first few spring training games in Mesa, Arizona, where the A’s are testing out similar safety procedures. Ushers there are walking up and down the aisles with signs reminding fans to wear their masks.

Despite those precautions, an important part of the game-day experience is the usual routines, the seventh-inning stretch and singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game," Kaval says.

“I heard it today,” he said, “and even with masks on, it sounds great.”

The San Francisco Giants and soccer’s San Jose Earthquakes are also planning to host fans when their seasons start in April.

For outdoor amusement parks such as Great America and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the limits are 15 percent of capacity in the red tier, 25 percent in the orange, and 35 percent in the yellow. Only in-state visitors are allowed to buy tickets.

Director of the Governor's Office of Business and Economic Development Dee Dee Myers says the reopening is good news for a part of the economy that’s been suffering for more than a year now.

“We're confident that we'll continue to work with people across sectors and across businesses, to make sure that we can move forward safely, but also in a way that's practical, to get people back to work, and get people back to some semblance of their lives that everyone is so ready for,” she said.

Nina Thorsen and Sara Hossaini

New Vaccine Site in East San Jose Aims to Increase Access for Hard-Hit Areas

Santa Clara County launched a new vaccine site Friday in East San Jose. The location at Eastridge Mall’s Aloha Roller rink was opened with expanding access to vulnerable populations in mind.

Starting Monday, vaccines will be adminstered at the site to eligible county residents by appointment, with doses for drop-ins subject to availability. The site will operate seven days a week and will offer evening appointments.

Santa Clara County, in partnership with site operator Stanford Health Care, opened the clinic as part of a plan to ensure equitable distribution of the vaccine in East San Jose and Gilroy.

With a 14% infection rate, the neighborhood is one of the hardest-hit in Santa Clara County.

"The people in this community live in overcrowded conditions," said Father Jon Pedigo, director for advocacy and community engagement for Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County. "They don't have the luxury that many other zip codes have to protect themselves. So this is the reality that we're dealing with. Many of our community members do not have regular health care."

SanJose City Councilmember Sylvia Arenas, who represents the district, said the site is well-placed.

“Eastsiders have grown up coming to this shopping center," she said. "This is a perfect site and an important step in removing the barriers for our community who so desperately need this vaccine."

While the center can administer up to 2,000 vaccines a day, it will start at 500 due to lack of supply. County officials hope they can ramp up soon as the state and federal government increase distribution.

Carolina Cuellar

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San Francisco Parents and Teachers of Kids With Special Needs Concerned About Return to Classroom

Hundreds of students with disabilities in the San Francisco Unified School District have gone a year without the kind of assessment that helps plan their education. Now, the district and teachers union have forged a deal to restart those evaluations.

The bad news is they still don’t know how in-person learning will be done safely.

Special educators often work with students with varying disabilities, moving between different classes and even schools all over the district.

“Students with disabilities have a lot of really specific needs,” said Megan Caluza, an SFUSD teacher who specializes in behavioral needs. She said certain safety standards for COVID-19 are a lot more complicated for her students.

"They're not all gonna wear masks," Caluza said. "That’s just how it goes. And they're gonna need help with hygiene issues — we wipe their faces and help them go to the bathroom.”

A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the virus spreads more often in classrooms where physical distancing and mask-wearing is harder to maintain.

“I would worry a lot less if I was vaccinated,” Caluza said.

Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last month that the state would begin setting aside 10% of the vaccine supply for educators by March. And while San Francisco’s vaccination sites are now open to teachers, doses have been limited and delayed by confusion between city and state officials. On Wednesday, San Francisco Mayor London Breed said the city had finalized a plan to get vaccine codes to teachers.

In the meantime, some teachers, including Caluza, have gone to Oakland for vaccines. In a statement, a spokeswoman for SFUSD said it's working with the city to make vaccinating teachers a priority.

But even if vaccines do turn up, there are some parents that aren’t in a rush to go back. This is especially true for parents of children with severe needs.

Jose Victor Luna's daughter, who is in first grade at Dolores Huerta Elementary School, was born with leukemia and is immunodeficient. He says he likes remote learning, both because he can spend more time with his daughter and because he knows she’s safe from the virus.

He says the virus is still out there, and it poses too great a risk.

"And it's not just how it relates to my daughter, but to all students who are special," even if all teachers are vaccinated, he said in Spanish.

The logistics of hybrid learning for students like Luna’s daughter are still subject to closed-door negotiations between the union and the district.

Marco Siler-Gonzales

Newsom Signs School Bill, With 'Optimism' That Reopenings Will Follow

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday signed a $6.6 billion plan aimed at getting the youngest California public school students back in classrooms this month.

In a virtual signing ceremony with legislators and state school officials, Newsom expressed confidence that Assembly Bill 86 would spur a return to classroom learning by setting aside vaccine doses for school workers and creating an April 1 reopening deadline for districts to get full funding.

"I am here in the spirit of not just gratitude, but optimism that this bill is going to really accelerate openings all across this state," Newsom said.

The legislation rewards districts that return at-risk and grades K-2 students to classroom instruction. For those districts located in counties that are not in the state's most-restrictive purple COVID-19 tier, bringing back all elementary school students and one grade of middle or high school is required to get full funding.

State lawmakers opted to smooth the pathway to reopening with the bill, rather than mandate an end to distance learning.

The legislation does not require teachers to be vaccinated before returning, and allows districts to reopen without a labor agreement with school unions, though many districts will still negotiate such a pact.

"When you look at 58 counties, a thousand-plus schools districts, this truly is a challenge at scale that no other state in the country is faced with," Newsom said.

But by not requiring districts to offer in-person instruction, as critics of the plan have called on Newsom and the Legislature to do, state lawmakers admitted they are now at the mercy of decisions made by school boards across the state.

"We're going to take this as a first step," said state Assemblymember Phil Ting, D-San Francisco. "We're going to go home to all our districts and beg all our districts to open up, use this money."

Guy Marzorati

Solano County Health Officer: Red Tier Maybe Next Week, Family Get-Togethers Not Restaurants Spread COVID

Five Bay Area counties have now made it to the less restrictive red tier of the state's coronavirus risk-assessment system, which dictates the limitations imposed on businesses and activities in each county as the region continues to contend with COVID-19.

Four counties — Alameda, Contra Costa, Sonoma and Solano — remain in the purple tier, the most regulated category. Dr. Bela Matyas, Solano County's health officer, spoke with KQED's Tara Siler this week about the latest local developments and his views on reopening.

The following is edited for length and clarity.

What will it take for Solano County to move from the purple tier to the less restrictive red tier?

Matyas: There are two ways.

Either we can reduce our reported daily case rate to less than 7 per 100,000 people per day — which for us means getting below 31 reported cases daily — and do that for 14 days.

The other way, the way that I think we are most likely to move to red, is our health equity metric, which is good enough to qualify us for the [even less restrictive than red] orange tier.

And so that will allow us, given our current case rate, to potentially go into the red tier as early as next week.

The red tier allows for indoor activities, including dining at 25% capacity. Do you think limited indoor dining is a good idea or would you prefer to keep dining to outdoors?

I think that if it is performed safely indoors, it is perfectly appropriate, and it's actually preferable given the weather. Not all of our restaurants, given the limitations that we have in our county, can do outdoor dining. So the indoor dining option is far superior from the standpoint of helping out that particular industry try to get back on its feet. And certainly patrons have indicated a preference for indoor over outdoor. The key is to make sure that the sector guidelines are adhered to carefully.

How concerned are you that this reopening, though, could land Solano County right back in the purple tier?

I think there has been an underlying assumption that reopenings have led to surges. I can tell you with certainty that in Solano County, that is definitely not true. We have looked closely at what is going on when we are experiencing surges, and in each of them, it was people getting together with family and extended family and friends in their own home. It was the holiday season. That's where the disease was spreading. They weren't doing it at restaurants or at bars.

So I think the reopening will not increase the risk. What would increase the risk is the return of holiday season and people getting together with their family.

The CDC director is very concerned that progress against the virus could be lost with the spread of the variants. How concerned are you?

I think the variants do pose a genuine risk of increased transmission. But I'm hoping that here in Solano County, before any variants can take hold, we will have enough people vaccinated to provide adequate protection against that type of transmission. And since we are actively vaccinating the food and agriculture workforce, and pretty soon we'll be vaccinating people under the age of 65, I'm hopeful there will be enough vaccine protection in our community so that the variants will not pose a risk just because businesses are reopening.

How is the vaccine supply holding up?

It's definitely gotten better over the past week or two. There was an interruption in supply because of the storms across the Midwest a couple of weeks ago, and we were really running low. But we have caught up with the vaccine from that time period, and we're able to vaccinate many more people now.

With the approval of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, we're anticipating more of a supply increase as well. So I would say that obviously we could use more vaccine. I'm sure that we could vaccinate three or four times as many people as we are if we had enough. But we'll take what we get. And right now, I would say that our supply is good enough that we are making meaningful progress. We have at this point vaccinated probably more than a third of those eligible individuals that want to be vaccinated.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires only one dose instead of two. What populations do you think should be getting it?

I think there are two groups. One is those who are highly transient and for whom coming back for a second dose is very difficult. The homeless clearly come to mind, although not all homeless are equally transient. The other group is those individuals who have held off on getting the Pfizer or the Moderna vaccine because they don't want two shots. And I've been surprised by how many people have made that decision that they wanted to wait for Johnson & Johnson because they only want one shot, knowing fully that it comes with a different level of protection. I think those two groups are pretty sizable populations.

What do you think is the most dangerous thing people are doing right now in this period when most of us are waiting for a vaccine?

I think clearly, interacting with family and friends in a way that does not provide protection. Most people have developed good habits when interacting with strangers or in a public space. But a lot of people continue to get together in a way that transmits disease. Letting your guard down and assuming your friends and family are safe is the most dangerous thing people are doing

San Franciso Finalizes Plan to Distribute Vaccine Access Codes to Teachers

San Francisco has finalized a plan with state officials to distribute access codes for educators to begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations, Mayor London Breed said Wednesday.

Teachers and other school staff became eligible for receiving the vaccine a week ago as the city entered Phase 1B of the state's vaccine plan.

On Monday, the city was set to receive 5,000 codes for teachers to make expedited appointments to get the vaccine, but the codes didn't arrive until late Tuesday.

According to Breed, the codes were delayed due to confusion by state officials on where to send them, since the city doesn't have a county office of education.

"We've distributed the first set of codes to the San Francisco Unified School District for distribution to public school educators and support staff, including charter schools that are slated to return to the classroom first," she said.

Breed added that the city's Department of Public Health is working with private and parochial schools to ensure those teachers also have access to the vaccine.

So far, SFUSD has received 2,650 codes for teachers, with this first batch meant to prioritize those returning to the classroom soon, such as elementary school teachers.

Breed has been a staunch advocate for reopening schools, supporting a lawsuit filed by the city attorney last month that seeks a court order to bring students back into classrooms as soon as possible.

"We still need a clear timeline for the district on reopening," she said. "All of our kids need to be back in the classroom safely as soon as possible, and that includes working to get them back five days a week for full days as soon as possible."

Both Board of Education President Gabriela López and SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews called on Breed to improve access to the vaccine in light of the recent delay.

"Up to now, teachers have been scrambling to make appointments at Walgreens and CVS, but without the priority codes, they had to get things done the best way they could," López said. "Many teachers have been taking BART across the bay to the Oakland Coliseum to get a shot. We can do better."

Matthews said the city has had the ability to vaccinate educators for over a week, but "staff are still having trouble getting appointments. As we've repeatedly stated, we need the city to immediately prioritize access for our educators."

United Educators of San Francisco President Susan Solomon decried the slow pace of teacher vaccinations.

"We've been advocating for a clear vaccination plan for educators and school staff for months now," she said. "We continue to watch as other counties, cities and districts work together to streamline the vaccination process and each week continue to see lack of movement here in San Francisco."

Annie Phan, a high school teacher in the city, says educators have received little to no information on vaccinations from San Francisco or the school district.

"I just don’t see the end of the tunnel, it all just feels like we’re going to be kept in the dark for a long time," Phan said.

-Bay City News and MJ Johnson